- Physical setting
- Social setting
Shakespeare’s Macbeth was written in the Elizabethan era around 1506 but it is set in the 11th century in the Scottish Middle Ages. Medieval Scotland is depicted as a wild and dangerous place where power struggles are common. Scotland was also the native country of King James I who was King of England when Macbeth was written and the protector of Shakespeare’s theater company.
The physical setting plays an active role in many ways
The specific setting of the scenes is often vital to understanding the play. The scenes in Macbeth are set either outdoors, typically on desolate heaths or battlefields, or indoors, typically within claustrophobic castle walls. The gloomy settings underline the dark themes of the play. One example is the play’s opening scene in which we meet the three witches. Their presence and the stormy weather make up the setting and indicate to us that we are in for a dramatic story.
Also, many of the scenes are set at night, for instance the murder of Duncan, the murder of Banquo, and the banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost. This contributes to the gloomy atmosphere of evil which generally runs through the play. In Act 1, Scene 5, Lady Macbeth actively addresses the night, asking it to conceal the upcoming murder of Duncan:
Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes.
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry, ‘Hold, hold.’ (1.5.48-52)
Thus, the night is personified as a force in itself. Macbeth does the same in Act 3, Scene 2 when he is preparing to have Banquo murdered (3.2.52-59). The personification of the night hints at how crucial the setting is to understanding the play.
The setting is also used as part of the play’s narrative technique. This is particularly clear in the first part of Act 5. Almost like a modern action movie, Shakespeare cuts between the setting of Macbeth’s castle, where he is preparing for his final battle, and the fields surrounding the castle, where Malcolm’s army is advancing. This technique increases the pace of the play and builds tension.